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Foresight Update 3

page 5

A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Hypertext Nonpublishing '87

by K. Eric Drexler

Discussions at the Hypertext '87 workshop at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, revealed some common confusions and misconceptions regarding hypertext publishing. Some of these lead to underestimation of its difficulties, others to overestimation.

Underestimation of difficulties chiefly resulted from failures to understand the difference between a distributed publishing medium with two-way links and the distribution of hypertexts joined (at best) with one-way references. The issues raised by true hypertext publishing are explored at length in Robin Hanson's paper "Toward Hypertext Publishing: Issues and Choices in Database Design," published in ACM SIGIR Forum, vol. 22, no. 1,2 (Winter '88).

Overestimation of difficulties stemmed in part from an assumption that hypertext publishing, to succeed, must reach a large fraction of the population and contain a corpus of knowledge on the scale of a major library. These grand goals are inappropriate for a new medium (though one should seek system designs that do not preclude such achievements). A hypertext publishing medium could reach the threshold for usefulness and growth with a small community of knowledge workers, and could be of great value while used by only a minute fraction of the population. With this realization, the fear that hypertext publishing must be an enormous, long-term undertaking seems unmotivated. No positive arguments were advanced to support this fear.

Overestimation of difficulties also stemmed from the notion that the challenges of hypertext publishing must include all the challenges of lesser hypertext goals--that a publishing medium would be of no value unless isolated hypertexts had proven their competitiveness with books, magazines, movies, schools, or whatever. This seems mistaken. Isolated hypertexts compete with authored, organized documents; a hypertext publishing system would compete with the disorderly tangle of material found in journals and libraries. One can imagine that linear textbooks are always superior for organized presentations of established knowledge, while simultaneously believing that the linked, non-linear organization of a scientific literature would greatly benefit from computer support. This shows the difference of the goals, and the lesser challenge of certain aspects of hypertext publishing.

At the workshop, recognition of the benefits of hypertext publishing for the evolution of new knowledge was scanty; most participants focused on the utility of isolated, carefully-authored hypertext documents for transmitting established knowledge. As familiarity with the challenges and benefits of hypertext publishing grows, so should interest and activity.

This is a postscript taken from a draft paper entitled "Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge." It and a draft version of the Hanson paper cited can be obtained on request from FI. Please include a donation of at least $1.50 per paper to cover our costs.


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Xanadu Hypertext Funded

The prospects for hypertext publishing brightened considerably with the recent announcement by the Xanadu hypertext group (Xanadu Operating Company, Inc.) that they have entered into an agreement with Autodesk to develop products based on their proprietary software technology. Autodesk produces AutoCAD software (a major product line in the IBM PC market), and can supply the funds, management know-how, and marketing expertise to help Xanadu grow into a profitable entity able to implement the ambitious Xanadu hypertext publishing system.

[See follow-up article in Update 4.]


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Hypertext Catches On

Partly boosted by the name of Apple's HyperCard software, partly driven by an outbreak of good sense, the idea of hypertext is finally becoming accepted some twenty years after the term was coined by Ted Nelson, author of Computer Lib/Dream Machines and Literary Machines.

The enthusiasm showed at the first large meeting on the topic, Hypertext '87, which was heavily oversubscribed. Yet despite the standing ovations given to both Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart, there was virtually no coverage of the hypertext publishing concept advocated by Nelson and implemented in part by Engelbart in his Augment system. The conference focused instead on short-term uses of stand-alone hypertext systems [see above]. Discussions suggested, however, that this omission would not be repeated.

Another sign of interest in hypertext publishing came from Apple Computer, which invited Eric Drexler to speak on the subject; contacts within Apple report enthusiastic results. Drexler covered the same topic in his closing talk at this year's PC Forum, a meeting of the personal computer industry's top business leaders, and on a "Hypertext and Electronic Publishing" panel at the Office Information Systems Conference.

HyperAge, a new bimonthly magazine, will cover the burgeoning field of hypertext and hypermedia. Charter subscriptions are $19.95 for one year (six issues); call 800-682-2000 to subscribe.

See above for news on the Xanadu hypertext project.


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Science Fiction and Advanced Technologies

by Eric S. Raymond

Science fiction has been called the best preventive for future shock. Its tradition of grounding stimulating speculation in scientific fact has often inspired scientists, and has not infrequently proved more predictive than formal futurism. The classic example of this is Cleve Cartmill's 1942 fictional extrapolation of the atomic bomb from the work of Meitner and Frisch in the late 1930s--one sufficiently exact that the FBI was moved to investigate the matter on behalf of the then-secret Manhattan Project.

Among the tremendous variety of futures projected by SF writers in the last fifty years, a few have assumed the kind of cheap control over matter and energy implied by mature nanotechnology. Many others have investigated the implications of computer networking and AI. In this article I will cite some SF novels that include scenarios that bear directly on the potential of nanotechnology, fact forums, and the social mechanisms needed to adapt to abundance and ultra-rapid technological change.

David's Sling, Marc Stiegler, Baen Books, 1988, pb, 346 pp.

This excellent and thought-provoking novel centers (despite its military-SF cover) on the uses of a type of hypertext-based fact forum Stiegler calls a 'decision duel,' and the potential of public-access computer networks to transform politics. Strongly recommended for anyone interested in the politics of technological change and appropriate social institutions for the information age. And the inside back cover includes a fascinating factual surprise...

Voyage from Yesteryear, James P. Hogan, Ballantine, 1982, pb, 377 pp.

This novel turns on a confrontation between representatives of a hungry, militarist Earth and a human colony at Alpha Centauri that has developed a society based on the kind of material abundance that a mature nanotechnology and AI will imply. Hogan's portrait of a society in which everything but human talent and attention is effectively free is inspiring, and the details of their form of warfare-by-cultural-seduction make entertaining reading.

Marooned in Realtime, Vernor Vinge, Baen Books, 1986, pb, 312 pp.

This magnificent sequel to Vinge's earlier The Peace War projects a future in which the development of nanotechnology-like abilities has sent all the technological trend curves vertical and thrown the human species through a massive phase change he calls the Singularity. We see the traces of the Singularity through the eyes of a band of refugees in time, the few that missed it because they were in temporal stasis from earlier periods and have awakened on a world from which humanity has vanished. The book is a fascinating multi-leveled whodunit with more than a little to say about the implications of abundance and freedom.

Vernor Vinge's previous work (notably The Peace War and various stories in the collection True Names and Other Dangers) is frequently built around the possibilities of intelligence increase, freedom and material abundance, and is generally recommended.

If anything, SF--like the scientific establishment--has generally been far too conservative in its predictions; for example, almost no one in the SF field predicted a Moon landing as early as 1969. Nevertheless, it has generated a lot of thinking about the consequences of technological change that should prove useful and may even turn out to be of vital importance in coping with the implications of nanotechnology.

Eric Raymond is a software designer living in Pennsylvania who is now working on building fact forum networks.

[See also John Cramer's technology fiction article in Update 8.. A current bibliography of nanotechnology in science fiction is available on the Web.]


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First Course Offered

The first formal course in nanotechnology is being offered at Stanford University this spring quarter. Entitled "Nanotechnology and Exploratory Engineering" and taught by FI president Eric Drexler, it is sponsored by the Computer Science department. The series of interdisciplinary lectures and discussions covers the fundamentals of nanotechnology and the engineering of molecular devices. The course is expected to result in a textbook at some point.

Topics include: physical principles of molecular machines; the nature and methodology of exploratory engineering; implementation strategies for nanotechnology; nanocomputers, nanorobotics, and molecular assemblers; thermal noise and the thermodynamics of computation; applications of nanotechnology to computation, medicine, and large-scale systems.

Attendance at the first meeting of the class was high, with over three times as many students as had been expected. Many sat on the floor, some stood in the hall throughout the two-hour class, while one enterprising student climbed in the window.

[Follow-up article in Update 4]


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Scanner Request

A Nanotechnology Study Group would like to scan Engines of Creation into machine-readable form for uploading into a prototype hypertext system they are developing. If you have access to a scanner and can help with this, please call the FI office.

[The Web version of Engines of Creation was announced in Update 25. The scanning was done by the Boeing Company (see The Web Introduction to Engines of Cration).]


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Nanotechnology Retreat

The third nanotechnology retreat was held in late January outside Seattle. Sponsored by a local study group and led by FI president Eric Drexler, it was an intensive weekend of discussion of nanotechnology and its policy implications. Since the group already had a good understanding of the basic issues, we were able to move immediately into advanced topics, both technical and policy-oriented.

FI plans to develop a series of these retreats, designed for 10-12 participants and directed by one of the other FI leaders. We are not yet ready to launch into this, so please don't request information yet. However, if you are interested in organizing such an event in your area, drop us a note to that effect--we will send you more information when its available.


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FI Tax Deductible

The Foresight Institute has received an advance ruling from the IRS stating that FI is exempt from federal income taxes as an educational and scientific organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. It is classified as a public charity which is not a private foundation and is entitled to receive tax-deductible contributions under Section 170(c)(2) of the Internal Revenue Code and related statutes.

The ruling is retroactive to our incorporation, so contributions made in 1986 and 1987 are also deductible in the year made, as permitted by law. FI has also received a similar favorable ruling from the state of California.


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Thanks

Again there are too many people who deserve thanks for all to be listed here, but we will include a representative group not mentioned elsewhere in this issue: Hewlett Packard for a generous contribution; IBM, Apple, Esther Dyson's EDventure Holdings Inc., and the MIT NSG for sponsoring talks; Technical Insights for donating their nanotechnology Delphi survey results; A. K. Dewdney, Bill Joy, Karl Hess, Prof. Leland Allen, Prof. Lester Milbrath, and Future Trends for helping to spread the word; Prof. Nils Nilsson for talking Eric Drexler into teaching the Stanford course; Gayle Pergamit, David Veres, Dave King, Pat Wagner, and Leif Smith for advice; Jim Palmer for legal help; T. Toth-Fejel, Dale Dellutri, Arel Lucas, and Michael Anzis for sending information.


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From Foresight Update 3, originally published 30 April 1988.


Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 3 to html for this web page.



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